Mexico's president intends to discuss a tariff his government imposed on Washington frozen potatoes and other agricultural products with President Obama during a state visit later this month, Sen. Patty Murray's office said Tuesday.
Murray, D-Wash., urged Mexico's ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, to prod his government to end a year-old 20 percent tariff on more than 90 U.S. agricultural and industrial products during a meeting Tuesday. Sarukhan told her his president, Felipe Calderon, will raise the issue with Obama when they meet, Murray's office said.
The tariff contributed to a $19.7 million decline in the value of exported Washington agricultural products to Mexico in 2009 compared with 2008, according to the Washington Department of Agriculture. And it has hit potato farmers particularly hard, because Mexico is the No. 2 international export market for Washington frozen potatoes.
Washington sustained an estimated $14 million decline in frozen potatoes exported to Mexico from April to December 2009, according to the Washington State Potato Commission. About 20,000 jobs are supported by the state's potato industry, the commission said.
Mexico now looks to Canada for the bulk of its french fries and other frozen potato products, the commission said.
The U.S. potato industry, according to the potato commission, has lost $31 million worth of export business since the start of the retaliatory tariffs. They were imposed after the expiration of a pilot program that allowed about 100 Mexican-owned trucks access to U.S. highways.
"I feel very strongly that Washington state farmers and families shouldn't be punished for a diplomatic dispute they had nothing to do with," Murray told Sarukhan, according to her office. "I urge the Mexican government to take a hard look at their list of retaliatory tariffs and end the ones that are hurting so many Washington state families."
Murray's office said she also plans to push Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to explain how the administration plans to resolve the dispute when he appears Thursday before the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, which the senator chairs.
"It's very positive. Sen. Murray, Sen. (Maria) Cantwell, Rep. (Doc) Hastings and our entire congressional delegation has been very vocal about this issue," said Matt Harris, director of trade for the potato commission.
He also said Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire questioned U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk during a recent meeting in Seattle about resolving the dispute.
"The (Obama) administration needs to know this action is hurting our small businesses, and our delegation knows that," Harris said. "It's not a fair deal to hold us captive for something we have nothing to do with."
The trade dispute began in April 2009 after the end of the pilot trucking program, which was intended to show that Mexican trucks and drivers could operate safely on U.S. highways beyond border areas.
The Teamsters Union and some highway safety groups objected to the pilot program, arguing Mexican trucks were unsafe. And earlier this year, Jim Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, reaffirmed his opposition.